Atkins & Ai Gallery is delighted to present the first solo gallery exhibition of Shandong-born artist Meng Liping, Genesis, Faith and Indoctrination,an exhibition in two parts and overview of Liping’s recent years’ work in collage, line drawing and ink brush, bringing together an expanse of evolution, systems of belief and myth-making.
Meng Liping is a woman and artist who shirks uniformity. The synonymous non-conformist, multi-faceted character is made greatly more manifest in Liping’s case due to her striking open-mindedness – and access to a profound range of emotions as a result of a series of defining life experiences, sparked by the loss of both parents in separate accidents at a young age. Part roguish rock’n’roll, part quiet, genuinely bashful child, there is something very visceral and emotional and, at the same time, earnest and proper about Liping. This bona fide blend is her idiosyncratic charm, and it is also the nature of her artistic output. The oscillation in her work between, like a child, a need for sense and certainty in the world, and the subversive and risqué, makes her distinctive in the context of her young peers currently working in China. Where the former sees her jibing death to affirm life in her ongoing series The Liberating Experience (of Accepting Inevitability), quietly marvelling at the mystery and interconnectedness of life in the Genesis series or the coalesce of order and spirit above dogma in both Spiritual Landscapes and her own re interpretation of the classic Chinese tradition in Contemporary Shan Shui, the latter, by contrast, sees Liping exploring sexual ambiguities, where the feminine assumes the masculine (and the reverse), the historical link of sex to shame, (both embodied in collage works such as Spring and On Show), or investigating power and role plays, again in her collage works, and in her most recent series of oil paintings, Revolution (illustrated page twelve). In short, to Meng Liping the former represent reason and rationality:- be it God’s divine plan, instilling a connection to our own mortality, or the organization of the Shan Shui artist’s mind; while the latter represent the messiness and randomness of human existence and, at times, the illogic in the form of social conditioning and indoctrination. Meng Liping is rare amongst her contemporaries of only children in her masterful deflection away from the autobiographical, at least in the works she will exhibit publicly. Similarly, her work is almost completely devoid of all traces of the confessional (such as fellow female artists Cui Xiuwen or Song Kun), the playfully self-exploratory (Cao Fei, Chen Qiulin) and nostalgic (Chen Ke, Liang Yuanwei). Liping’s interdisciplinary inquiries are matched by a truly multimedia approach:- in addition to her extensive body of collage works, she is an intuitive, unaffected oil painter, a line drawer, and brave exponent of experimentation with ink, embodied in mixed media works such as Procreation’s Matrix, the wonder of the beginning of human life, (page twenty-three), executed in meticulous ink, mixed with a literal and symbolic abandonment to wine.
I am often asked by a Chinese audience if Meng Liping has trained in the West or at least lived for a period outside of China, such is the uncommonness, by Chinese standards, of her candour towards sexuality and extensive interest in world politics beyond her native China – where so many of her Chinese contemporaries remain inward- looking and surprisingly conservative when faced with even mildly controversial images still today. It is true that some of Liping’s imagery is arresting by any standards. The artist’s message behind The Shining, a 2011 collage work, referencing the story of Stephen King’s infamous novel adapted in film by Stanley Kubrick, similarly posits man’s infliction of violence on his fellow man, and moreover within the family unit, those who should love and protect one another, as a terror far worse than epidemic or foreign invasion. Having (at the date of this exhibition) never journeyed beyond the People’s Republic, Liping has remarkably fed her hunger for new material from afar by roaming through the covers of world leaders’ biographies (Churchill and Thatcher are of enduring interest), monographs of artists, and history books ranging from the Mayans to the Mongolians, all of which are reflected in the wide-ranging subjects of her artistic production. One example of a fusion of her interests is her 2011 – 2012 oil on canvas triptych, Hemisphere. The auspicious Chinese symbol of power and strength contained in the dragon, and doves and lotus, the respective Western and Eastern symbols of peace, all intertwine in a work executed in the style and colour spectrum of the Chinese folklore puppets of the Tang dynasty, a reference intended by the artist to a period in China of great openness to multiple cultures. This position is re affirmed by Liping through her rendering of an ancient Mozarabic ornament, a design that found its way to Christian Spain in the 8th century. It is an unaffected work whose deliberately deceptive stylistic naiveté belies its more serious messaging of an idealized balance between Far Eastern, Middle-Eastern and Western philosophies. Laterally engaged and quick to see the comical, Meng Liping’s assorted interest in world politics, history and the mechanisms of indoctrination is reflected in collage works that speak for themselves in the overt satire this artist channels through erotic and time-travelling images imposed on important historical movements and milestones over the course of the past century. One example is The Showing, set in the Hotel Majestic in Paris in 1973, when, after a million and a quarter deaths, combatants in the Vietnam war met to discuss a Vietnam Peace Agreement. The enormous meeting table, symbolic of a then unbridgeable gulf between North and South Vietnamese, is further parodied by the imposed image of a couple astride the table. In Perplexus, Liping laments cultural disconnect through the injured faces of the Indian participants in Ghandi’s “non-cooperation” movement espousing ahimsa (non-violence) against the British Raj, (which sadly descended into violence at Chauri Chaura in 1922, ultimately leading to Ghandi’s two year arrest), superimposed on the naked, faceless bodies of imperialists’ wives seemingly obliviously sunbathing naked. Elsewhere, lighter examples reveal an artist sensitive to the possibilities for portraying truly diverse definitions of female beauty (Meditation, Candy, Recreation and Echo), at ease in playing with non-binary depictions of sexuality (Polyhedral Bodies) and belittling social hierarchies through the great leveler that is sex in Post!. What adds to the intrigue of Liping’s collage is the deep well of historical sources from which she draws:- be it Cecil Beaton’s dispatch to China to take documentary photographs of under-age girls at a textile factory for the British propaganda war effort, time-warped to later photographs of Mao Zedong and Marshal Lin Biao amidst mass hysteria at the gates of Tiananmen (Hey, Hey, Hey); to legendary war photographer Robert Capa’s images of startling all-girl national squadrons at Hankou (today part of Wuhan), shot at the onset of the Japanese aggression of the late 1930’s in Drill; or lesser-known early foreign interlopers into China, such as Joseph F. Locke’s 1926 photograph of three women in the stocks for alleged murder, the backdrop of Epiphany.
Recently selected for group exhibition at Beijing’s Songzhuang Art Museum by Li Xianting, the famed critic also known as the “Father of Chinese contemporary art”, bearing witness to Liping’s current professional development is, as the Chinese proverb goes, like watching bamboo shoots emerge after the rain. A favourite and well-known model of Chinese oil masters such as Chen Danqing and Yang Feiyun, Meng Liping’s face would no doubt be recognized in the art works of these acclaimed stars. Liping has also captured the portraits of established artists, for instance Ah Xian, shown below right. Yet, it was the praise she received in the studios of such figureheads for her own artistic creation that has recently invested Liping with the conviction to seek the public exhibitions her works merited beyond a select, private circle. She has come very far indeed. Born into humble surroundings in 1981 in Longkong, Shandong Province, China, and overcoming a series of testing circumstances, Liping first taught herself to draw, and then to paint, ultimately winning herself a place at the Fine Arts Department of Laiyang Normal School, Shandong. In a region of the world where there is arguably an over-emphasis on rote learning, the crucial complement to Liping’s formal education (and what sets her apart from her colleagues) is her disciplined attitude to self-education and advancement. If there were ever a prize amongst young artists in China today for a genuine breadth of interests, without the faintest suggestion of self- reminiscing, (coupled with the notable absence of emulating the tried and tested path of a professor or mentor), then Meng Liping wins first place and the mantle of exemplar.
– E. S. de W. P.